Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oswald Avery's connection to Haldeman-Julius

It seems an unlikely connection, but there does exist a tenuous connection between two of our favorites here at the online edition of the Arcadian Recorder.

Oswald Avery's grandfather was publicly credited as having helped perfect the successful printing of tiny, light, complete, readable bibles on India Paper and thus helping to secure the fortunes of the hitherto hapless Oxford University Press.

Since OUP, as it is usually known in the book trade, is today one of the most valuable trademarks in the world, this is a story worth recalling.

OUP gained this rise to world prominence based on its exclusive hold on the secret knowledge required to make India paper - a incredibly thin, flexible, strong and yet opaque & non-yellowing paper made out of old hemp ropes and lots of lime.

It allowed you to pack in a million readable words (like the Bible) in a small, light but permanently readable book - perfect for shipping in mass quantities across the world on a very tight budget.

For Christian evangelicals determined to 'evangelize the world in one generation' it was - literally - a God-sent paper.

OUP quickly sold millions of its lightweight bibles, dictionaries and reference books based on the use of this paper.

Haldeman-Julius couldn't afford the price of this paper and expect to keep selling his 'little blue books' at the price of an American nickel shipped post-paid worldwide.

But his mind moved along the same lines of constantly seeking ways to 'mass-evangelize the world' at a reasonable price.

His book-making frugality matched and even exceeded those of his competitors in the world of Christian bible and tract makers.

I say 'competitors' because of course the personal dogma of Haldeman-Julius that drove him to be equally frugal in his printing methods was simply this: " There is no Christian God" !

Friday, September 18, 2009

Top-Down Genetics versus Mashup Genetics

'Must confess.

We never did like the term 'Horizontal Gene Transfer' , aka HGT ( sometimes otherwise known as LGT ,for Lateral Gene

In particular we always hated that 'transfer' bit.

The denotation is accurate enough, but its connotations conjure up entirely the wrong impression.

We'd bow in the direction of Dawson and call it HGT , Horizontal Gene Transformation.

For in fact the incoming bits of DNA disrupt - creatively - the existing fat and comfortable set of genes in the organism being invaded and the end result isn't some tidy orderly transfer of assets from one bank account to another, but more in the order of a micro-scale catastrophe.

There said it.

Catastrophe, cat-as-tro-phe - not neo-catastrophism, because we don't think it ever really went away - not out there in the real world and not out there in the real minds of many.

Only scientists and their fellow travelers consigned the word to a sudden death.

They said catastrophes rarely happen and when they do they are only local and short term - and soon we will be able to predict and prevent even these rare local events.

Catastrophes at the level of cells and microbes simply never happened.

But they do - we multi-celled creatures are the result of one such genetic mashup - when one sort of bacteria survived inside another type of bacteria to the point where it became part of the bacteria, inside its own cell walls and created the first multi-celled being .

Nine months later,more or less, you and us emerged.

There is no intellectual crime lower than seeking support for some or other human theory by claiming it merely reflects the laws of nature.


But it is interesting to tease out the parallels for human creativity in the current moves to mashup old boring top down controlled copyrights to see what crawls out of the shell and the tremendous effects HGT has had in the past in mashing up stale boring old top down Vertical genetics to see what happens.

Penicillin , after all, was the result when a bacteria and a yeast decided to mashup their quite different DNAs....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The 1940 Peace Bomb joins the 1800 Peace Mine...

In any other circumstances, pacifist Leo Szilard might have been best remembered as the inventor (along with fellow pacifist Albert Einstein) of the modern fridge.

Instead he joined some others (sometimes pacifist others) in working on a super weapon that would so frighten the planet's militarists that they would instantly sue for permanent world peace.

Unfortunately, it was agreed that the backward militarist mind would require a convincing demonstration project, before being convinced.

So in the end a few hundred thousand people ended up dead in radiation and fire, all for 'the greatest good of the greatest number' ---but universal peace still did not break out - far from it.

So poor Szilard is today primarily remembered for instigating the Manhattan Project rather than inventing the perfect fridge ....or the perfect peace.

By contrast, Robert Fulton, a fellow New York City area resident like Szilard, (albeit from a hundred and fifty years earlier ), is best known today for building the first commercial steam boat service in the world, between New York City and Albany.

But as H. Bruce Franklin points out in his ground-breaking book "War Stars" , Fulton had had his utopian pacifist weapon scheme as well.

This submarine and sea-mine system was designed to destroy the British navy, freeing the high seas for universal free trade and commerce and thus introducing an era of permanent world peace.

This was/is standard centuries-old Liberal dogma, still much spouted today.

Fulton's willingness to sink a few real ships (along with their real crews) is also right on par with all the many Liberal peace bomb efforts: in the utilitarianism-driven willingness to see a 'few' die (unwillingly and unasked) for the greater good of the greater number.

Between Fulton and Szilard, New York has thrown up a number of Liberal pacifist and their peace weapons - perhaps most notably that shy pacifist Carl Norden.... and his precision WW II bombsight of the same name.

All these plans start off as efforts to design a totally new advance on weapon systems.

But these superweapons are not for profitably continuing sales in continuous wars.

Rather they are to 'demonstrate' their horrific effects just once and then usher in world peace forever.

All of them have a scope and gravitas and a vision about them that seems perfectly cut to fit Manhattan's taste in grandness-for-the-sake-of-grandness, thus becoming 'the Empire State Building of New York intellectual conceits'.....

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oswald Avery : unknown and famous for the wrong things...

It is the tragedy of Halifax Nova Scotia born Oswald Avery that he is famous for a study he didn't really believe in (and opposed for years) and he is unknown for his lifework, which today saves millions of childrens' lives around the world each year.

Oswald Avery is today known as 'The Father of Molecular Biology' , which should tip us off right from the start.

Scientists are never more manipulative and intellectually dishonest than when they are fabricating the history of the "Father" (never the "Mother" or "parents") of their particular branch of science.

Avery is no exception. In this case, we know this to be so, because the person who created the myth of Avery (Joshua Lederberg) said so: he intended to 'do a Mendel on Avery'.

Gregor Medel did wonderful pioneering work , but his credentials for being considered the father of any science are widely regarded today as spurious - and he would be the first to say so loudly if he came back today.

As would Avery regarding his alleged founding role in molecular biology - to his credit, he never claimed much for his work in this field while he was alive - and he lived for 10 years after his 'big' discovery.

But in the saving-the-lives-of-millions-of-innocent-baby-children world, the world of conjugate vaccines, Avery is a GIANT - or should be.

He certainly is to the researchers in that field.

But he is merely 'the key individual' in an effort that spanned a century and included every continent,thousands of researchers and hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is a story far too vast and far too complicated for popular science reporting to credit to any one medical super hero and one shining experimental result: no Pasteur or Jonas Salk here.

Instead Avery is praised for one 'seminal-paper-that-was-ignored-at-the-time' --- which rather implies an intellectual oxymoron and suggests the difficulty in crediting him as the Father of anything .

That paper was published in February 1944 but had its formal beginnings with experiments that began on October 22nd 1940 on Manhattan Island, that tiny island not far off the American coast.

Ah yes ! October 1940 : menses mirabilis indeed.

It is almost as if May 1940, certainly one of the most 'menses horribilis' in all of Western Civilization, (followed by the August to September 1940 aborted invasion of England : half horribilis half mirabilis), seemed to have drawn out extraordinary efforts from various North American scientists deeply emotionally affected by the events in Europe but too old to be called to actively take up a rifle.

Because one of the things those three extraordinary laboratory efforts in October 1940 have in common is their sheer physicality - scaled up to pilot plant size before table top work had even started; dirty, tiring, dangerous work.

Literally, not just figuratively, fighting for results in the trenches of science.

So, if in October 2010, we mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the financial recognition for (a) George Laurence's efforts to build an atomic pile, and (b) Henry Dawson's start in his efforts to cure SBE with natural penicillin injections, we might as well add (c) the formal start of Oswald Avery and Colin MacLeod's efforts to determine the chemical nature of Henry Dawson's Transforming Principle - proving it to be DNA.

Did we say 'North American scientists' ??

Let it stand.

We all know that we here at the Arcadian Recorder also mean 'Nova Scotian-born scientists', but let that remain our little secret.....

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Manhattan Pilot : Harlem Shuffled

What could seem more innocent than a project initiated by pacifists and an airplane named after someone's mother?

And what could seem more threatening than a project invigorated by a group of veterans of the frontline trenches and a heavy bomber ominously named 'The B-a-a-d Penny' ?

The cliches of innocence and harm align neatly enough in Hollywood movies but in the real world, events often show themselves to be a great deal more paradoxical.

In 1999, a survey by Newseum and USA Weekend of 36,000 American men and women revealed that they thought the top news story of the entire twentieth century involved a little boy and a baby girl and took place in an eighty acre area on a tiny island not far off the American coast.

In that tiny eighty acre area, the pacifists and the frontline vets worked on their projects almost within sight of each other, albeit while existing in totally different moral universes.

And as every good eighty acres should, this story involved a mule.

His name was Henry Dawson.

This is not his biography, but it is his story....